After its run was cut short in 2020, the Bridge’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ returns for 2022 with Simon Russell Beale and Eben Figueiredo rejoining the cast alongside newbie Lyndsey Marshal. This review is from 2020, though we weren’t actually giving stars to things at that point, too many weird Covid vibes.
Yeah, the Pfizer vaccine is a miracle of science – but has anybody tried injecting people with ‘A Christmas Carol’? In the toughest year for London theatres since Oliver Cromwell shut them all down, adaptations of Charles Dickens’s beloved ghost story seem to have remained steadfastly immune to the ravages of 2020: between online and IRL productions, there are at least a half-dozen ‘Carols’ in London this year.
This three-hander from the redoubtable Bridge – one of the star theatres of the year, having pulled off a 12-play rep season in the original gap between lockdowns – doesn’t make any tenuous case for the story as a Covid-era parable.
But you bung three of the best actors around – bonafide legend Simon Russell Beale, rising star Patsy Ferran, and hotly-tipped newcomer Eben Figueiredo – put the great Nicholas Hytner on directing duties, and combine with one of the most popular stories ever written, and you’re not going to go far wrong.
In a zippy lo-fi production, the trio share the story’s numerous characters, with Beale mostly rooted in place as a surly, emotionally numb Ebeneezer Scrooge. But despite the modern-ish dress and a couple of cute contemporary gags airlifted in from the rubble of pantomime season, the cast and director devised show sticks closer to the original novella than most versions: it tones down both the gothicky schtick and the cloying sentiment, offering instead a sprawling vision of a teeming, warrenlike nocturnal London. It actually feels palpably Dickensian, something that frequently gets lost in translation in a story that’s more adapted than read.
If the excellent Ferran and Figueiredo are largely comic foils, Russell Beale is the beating heart: he really is one of our very best actors, and decades of putting fresh new spins on Shakespeare’s trickiest heroes allow him to tackle old Scrooge with ease – here he’s less a snarling miser in a silly hat, but the more recognisable figure of a man who has become so consumed by his career that he’s forgotten the importance of everything else. He has genuinely all but forgotten his old life, and all but failed to consider the lives of others, which is why the intervention of the ghosts genuinely touches him. It’s not a radical take, but it’s a very good, thoughtful one.
Admittedly after 85 minutes of relative nuance, the aggressively happy ending feels a bit like the story has suddenly come up on something. But that is the ending of ‘A Christmas Carol’, and Hytner’s production just embraces it, blowing its top with ferocious good cheer and some Christmas jumpers you can’t unsee. And really, that’s what the season is all about.